Eye-Catching, To Say the Least

The ethnic diversity of the Davidson in Shanghai students makes us stand out from the crowd. With hometowns from the west coast, the Midwest, rural North Carolina, southern Florida, and even France, our entrance to Shanghai made an impression. Those of us with non-Asian ancestry have distinct features that make us stand out in a group of Chinese people. As for me, I knew my white skin and red hair would not blend in with the crowd.

Shanghai is arguably a global city. While the fascination with westerners is very much alive in China, walking down the streets of Shanghai, especially near the universities, will get you a few stares, but venture downtown to tourist areas and you can expect to have your picture taken. There you will meet Chinese people from the countryside and other rural areas of China who are mesmerized by westerners. During orientation week the entire group visited Nanjing Road, a popular attraction for tourists and eager shoppers. While sitting down at a bench, a Chinese girl and her mother passed by but not before they stopped near me. The mother wanted her daughter to take a picture with me, but the little girl was too shy. I politely smiled and waved goodbye. Other times the attention has been more drastic. In one particular case, a group of young Chinese adults stopped and immediately stared at me as I walked by them.

Photo Courtesy of Chai Lu Bohannan

A group of westerners traveling together can be easily spotted. Anytime the entire group ventures out I am on the lookout for peoples’ reactions. During any visit to the Bund, at least one of us is asked to pose for a picture. Our first night out a Chinese man was determined to be in a picture with all of us. Since the United States has many ethnicities with very distinct characteristics, this new attention proved to be a new concept for us. Even though we are quick to detect physical diversity, many of us are unaware of China’s diverse population.

Photo Courtesy of Chai Lu Bohannan

Jeffrey Wasserstrom argues that while China is considered to be ninety percent Han (he deems this a “problematic” number), the country is not without diversity, containing even more ethnic classes, speaking different dialects, and exhibiting different cultures than one might realize.[1] Wasserstrom believes Americans have a “too-limited appreciation of China’s diversity,” and suggests that misconceptions about China’s diversity are hundreds of years old, aided in part by war and visual representations such as books and film.[2] Shanghai provides a useful example to correct this misconception.

One unique quality and clear distinction between Shanghaiers and other mainland Chinese people is language. Shanghaiers have their own dialect called Shanghainese. Unlike the United States where everyone who speaks English can be understood, Chinese people who speak Mandarin cannot necessarily understand this specific Shanghai dialect. Shanghai is home to many young adults. Wasserstrom believes generational gaps also contribute to China’s diversity. He acknowledges that generational gaps exist throughout the world but believes China’s is most noteworthy. According to Wasserstrom, in 2007, the number of individuals under thirty years old constituted forty percent of China’s total population.[3]

While physical appearance is the most obvious form of diversity, various dialects and ideologies can deepen a population’s diversity. Even though they are watching me and thinking about how different I look, I am also watching them and wondering about their story. Being diverse is not always about standing out in a crowded space.


[1]Jeffrey Wasserstrom, China In the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, Kindle edition, 2010), location 1818. http://www.humanities.uci.edu/history/faculty_profile_wasserstrom.php.

[2]Wasserstrom, location 1785.

[3]Wasserstrom, location 1817.

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